The reconstructed slave cabin at Montpelier is beginning to take shape. All of that chopping and scraping is paying off. We are finally in the “notching” process, where the logs are precisely fitted on top of each other.
The cabin will be 16 by 20 feet with seven inch thick walls, openings for windows, a door, and I think, two chimneys. It will take at least 30 big logs to get this cabin built. There was light snowfall Monday night, making for a chilly Tuesday morning at work. But by noon, folks were peeling off jackets and hats.
“It’s bloody hot! Welcome to the East Coast,” said Alex Brady of the San Francisco Bay area. The 17-year-old traveled to Montpelier with his dad, Kevin Brady, for the workshop. “I think tomorrow I’m going to wear shorts.”
Alex did wear shorts and a t-shirt underneath his work jumpsuit, but it’s not hot! Today actually started off cold and rainy – about 40 degrees. That didn’t stop the work, though. Our top-notch carpenters, led by Craig Jacobs of Salvagewrights Architectural Antiquities in Orange, Virginia, moved the unfinished logs to a large barn. The skinning, juggling, scoring and hewing of logs continues! Before the day is over, we’ll be working outside again. (NOTE: I received a comment, questioning our de-barking process. The experts tell me the bark on pine trees is too brittle to use a barking spud; we’re only hewing two of the four sides of our logs.)
Our log cabin building workshop includes more than just re-building a slave cabin. We have also spent time touring the grounds and learning more about how James and Dolly Madison lived, especially during retirement. The Madison presidency ended in 1817. My group marched across gravel and stone walkways and through several inches of snow to the exact site where archaeologists believe the slave cabin we are constructing actually stood. It was reportedly built in the 1790s, early 1800s.
The Madison’s mansion is relatively close to this cabin. Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration at Montpelier, says the slaves who lived there probably tended to the garden and stables, and maybe even to the mansion. Today, the frames of six buildings where enslaved people lived and worked stand on display for visitors to see. The exhibit is called “A Landscape of Servitude: Recreating the Homes of the Enslaved Community.” These 30 or so slaves would have been cooks, maids, and other domestic servants. (NOTE: I took this picture, from the exact site where the slave cabin we are reconstructing once stood.)
“Whenever I visit these type of places, I always think about the labor – the real engine that ran the ‘big house,” said Terry James, who joined the group from Florence, South Carolina. “Who were these people and how were they treated?”
Terry often wandered away from the group, taking hundreds of pictures with his Cannon. He’s snapped more than 500 pictures so far. The professional photographer says he wants to remember every aspect of this trip, at every angle.